Thursday, October 3, 2013

Review of Unbroken By Laura Hillenbrand

This was one of the most amazing true stories I have read in recent years. It’s almost too over-the-top to be believable: a punk kid turned Olympian, surviving at sea for forty six days, enduring two and a half years inside Japanese POW camps, and later a conversion at a Billy Graham crusade to boot! It’s four books in one, with each part paced extremely well and holding my attention equally. I remember hearing that Laura Hillenbrand’s previous biography of Seabiscuit, a story about an underdog depression-era racehorse and his campaigning team, was significantly shorn of some of its true dramatic details because it was almost too unbelievable and readers would be incredulous. In much the same way, this story was also larger than life, and though I was thoroughly impressed with Seabiscuit, Unbroken outdid it in my estimation. Plus, it was a story about a human hero, and not, well, a horse. It’s the kind of book that renews one’s faith in humanity and pays tribute to the endless and barely tapped potential of the human will. For me, it fulfilled the ideal of the best kind of literature which Nietzsche referred to when he said, “I will not read anything that isn’t written in blood.” If any book has ever been written in blood, this book has.

Louie Zamperini was a rough-and-tumble, strong-willed child that got in a lot of trouble. No one knew what to do with him until his older brother Pete changed history by helping his young punk-of-a-brother discipline himself for competitive running. This was the beginning of an understanding for Louie: he could channel his energy and skills, previously wasted in boredom and domesticated restrictions, and perform incredible feats that would win the hearts of those around him instead of angering and alienating his community. Regrettably, much of what passes for education and ‘good citizenship’ in our society is in effect slashing the tires of pent up ‘inner wildness’ in young people, instead of placing them on the right track for their bent, and letting them take off with the full force of their passion and unbound intelligence. We should mourn civilization’s failure in recognizing brilliance and strength because it is outside of it natural, aboriginal environment in which it might thrive. Louie was a perfect example of the kind of life that can be lived if one finds the right kind of ‘wild’.

Louie went on to became an Olympic athlete, and that celebrity status is likely the reason his story is a bestseller now. When the war hit, he joined the Air Force, and served on a B-24 bomber. After a few successful bombing raids, his bomber went down with its crew, crash-landeding in the sea. He and one friend (Phil) survived in their inflatable raft for 46 days, fighting sharks (literally), watching a friend die, and living on captured birds, fish and sharks, before they neared an island in Japanese territory. It was during this time that Louie made a promise to God that if he was saved, he would dedicate his life to God forever. This would come back to haunt him, but would eventually deliver him from another type of prison.

As they neared the island, they were discovered, brought aboard a Japanese ship, and immediately taken to a POW camp where they were tortured physically, mentally, and emotionally. Over the course of two and a half years he was transferred between a few different POW camps, and somehow survived the inhumane labor and beatings, the personal vendetta of an especially cruel prison official called “The Bird” (he called Zamperini ‘prisoner #1’ because of his high priority on The Bird’s blacklist), sickness, starvation, and the fear of a mental breakdown. The prisoners’ sense of dignity was intricately woven with their hope, and many reported that the loss of one drastically affected the other. Louie admitted that the closest he ever came to feeling truly beaten was the time he was forced to clean out a pig sty with his bare hands. I fail to see how this is worse torment than taking a beating from 250 fellow POW’s forced to stand in line and hit him their hardest, or cleaning out the overflowing latrines with a soup ladle, or being injected with fluids being tested for chemical warfare, or being spat on by hundreds of visiting Japanese…but, what do I know. And I mean that this time.

Spoiler alert. He survived. But it wasn’t over. When he went home, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) took its toll and drove him to alcoholism and severe rage. He met and married his wife, Cynthia, shortly after his return to civilian life, who stuck with him through his transition back to normal life, but she became concerned and fearful over Louie’s decline. She experienced a spiritual awakening while attending a Billy Graham crusade, and Louie eventually went to a crusade and also experienced a change of heart and mind. He recounts remembering the promise he made to God while in the life raft that if he were saved, he’d dedicate his life to God forever. He was true to his word. It’s actually pretty amazing that he remembers sensing an immediate relief from his hatred and fear, and found peace that he traces back to that moment of conversion. He even ceased to experience nightmares and flashbacks. Louie was back to his stupendous self. He began travelling the world, speaking about his story and transformation, and even spoke a message of forgiveness to former POW camp guards and officials, shaking hands with his clearly recognized torturers. He even started a camp for delinquent youth called Victory Boys Camp, and later reconciled with The Bird, who he had initially determined to hunt down and kill during the first year of his return to civilization. And, get this, dude is still alive and kicking at 96 years old (there’s even a picture of him learning to ride a skateboard at 81) !!!

There is, perhaps, no contemporary memoir that can better illustrate the resilience of the human spirit. The message comes through strong and clear: you can make it through anything, and come out well on the other side. Though a happy life wasn’t the outcome for every person’s account relayed in the book (some of his friends actually died very unluckily and tragically), it only takes one example to blow the lid off of what we think is possible. And besides that, even Louie will one day have to die, and, as G.K. Chesterton reminds us, “Death is more tragic that death by starvation.”The real moral of this story is not that you can avoid tragedy (though you often can) but that some unseen, unknown good can come of sorrow and suffering. Everyone has to come to grips with the fact that life is a lottery that might seem to work for or against you, but every instant we live is unlikely. Every second is an impossibility. What is the probability that I would come to be, and come to think these thoughts and live this way? The odds of every moment are a universe-to-one, and these odds have obviously been in our favor, for we have come to be. What we often think of as misfortune is the lack of continuance of an apparent good, which at some point, is inevitable. But we have to believe deeply that life is lucky in its very existence, though it may appear unlucky in its limitedness. But it is the limit which reveals life and causes us to appreciate it. And if we’ve learned nothing else in this life, it’s that every moment is miraculous, full of potential, and it’s up to us to fully actualize that potential. Louie taught me that. Well, sort of.

And if you want a “Love and forgiveness conquers all” sort of message, it’s here. All through the narrative Louie is sharing with someone. He is sharing his water when he is dying of thirst, he is sharing his rice, he is sharing the fruit which, eating on his own could have helped him, but sharing with 20 other men only contributed to spiritual solidarity. He learned one of the most important lessons of survival as a human being: when you’re alone, you’re dead.

To be sure, there wasn’t a whole lot that was intentionally philosophical, or articulated as such, in the way it was written. The meta-message wasn’t exactly distilled into a concise thought or maxim you can carry with you, like, for instance, my line above, “The odds of every moment are a universe-to-one.” I know what you’re thinking. Let’s say it together, “That is a line I’ll commit to memory.” You’re welcome. There was even one of the most anti-climactic lines I have ever read, though it was mostly me making more out of it than what it was, but let me have my fun. Shortly after being rescued Louie said, “If I knew I had to go through those experiences again…I’d kill myself.” What? Are you kidding me? What are we reading this for if it’s so horrible an incident that the author himself would do himself in rather than face it again? Why am I trading some of my comfortable time taking on the stress of reading his story if even Louie ends up wishing it all away? Okay, I’ll admit, though it was a little unsettling to read after admiring him through the whole story for his courage, I’m definitely being harsh. I think what he was really saying was that he wouldn’t want to repeat the experience, though maybe he’s not quite wishing the original and unrepeatable experience (which all experience is) away with all of its accompanying lessons. At least, I hope that what he meant. Otherwise our takeaway is, “Carry a death-pill with you at all times.”

Looking back on this biography, I’m not sure how intentional Louie was about his life, or how calculated and conscious his courage was. His actions and thought processes seem, as the narrative reveals them, mostly reflexive and instinctual, even his Christian encounter at the Billy Graham crusade. I’m not saying he didn’t make good, strong moral choices, but there’s also no denying that he was a man with good survival genes. And maybe that’s the best thing to have for survival. Of course, if that’s true, his story can’t help me if I don’t have those same genes, but maybe I can intellectualize his earnings and put them to work in my life in a new way to inform and motivate good choices. Whatever made Louie the person he is, worked. He passed with flying colors. And a few scars.
Someone has said, “A crisis does not only make a person, it reveals what a person is already.” This story forces the questions in our mind as we read, “How do we know what we’re made of? How do we test our mettle? How do we prepare for crisis?” Watching Louie show us ‘how it’s done’ is encouraging and inspiring, and deeply soul-searching. It’s a book I wish upon on all my friends and enemies.

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